Steve Mayes has done what many people only dream of and turned his passion for LEGO® into the perfect job as a professional LEGO® artist.
This summer, over 40 of his intricate models will make up the LEGO® Timeline of Northern Innovation on display at Mining Institute as part of Great Exhibition of the North. Meet the man behind the creations and find out how Steve transformed not only iconic structures but innovative concepts into LEGO models…
Until a few years ago I had the very ‘normal’ job as an architectural photographer. Had you told me then that I’d soon become a professional LEGO® artist, I may have laughed you out of the room!
LEGO® was my great love as a child, then for some reason it disappeared from my life for 20 years. I think it was something to do with growing up. In 2012, I rediscovered it, and this time instead of building spaceships, it was architecture that interested me – in particular, recreating existing buildings and structures as accurately as possible. As ‘hobby’ builds, I created versions of my house, BALTIC, Civic Centre and the Angel of the North.
I had discovered a great love for LEGO® again – it filled a gap in my life of planning, problem solving, creating. Perhaps most importantly, I found it quite therapeutic, a way of disconnecting from the world for a while. It remains a deeply ‘mindful’ activity for me. Quite quickly, I was taking on commissions. Having spent 15 years working for architects and developers, I had a captive audience of photography clients who were more often than not LEGO® fans! I envisaged a side-line of creating LEGO® models – an alternative way of representing architecture.
My 2017 North East LEGO® Landmarks exhibition at the Centre for Life was a turning point, showcasing a dozen of my builds, including commissions such as St James’ Park and a microscale model of Team Valley Trading Estate. Following that, one of my favourite projects was to build a 3m long Metro train, half of which was built with the help of children in the summer holidays of 2017.
Inspired by the North
I am deeply passionate about the North of England, but I was born in the Midlands. I studied Psychology at Manchester University, and then moved to Newcastle in 2000 to become an economic consultant. I’d never been to the Newcastle before. I had no idea the effect it would have on me. The architecture of the Quayside and the coastline of Northumberland led directly to my career as a photographer. When I turned to LEGO® again, it was the iconic structures of the area that were my subject matter. So whether it was photography or LEGO®, Newcastle and Gateshead were an inspiration.
I knew I wanted to be involved in Great Exhibition of the North…
So when I heard that we were to host the Great Exhibition of the North I knew I wanted to be involved. My concept, of telling the story of Northern innovation in LEGO®, formed quickly, well before there was any call out to local artists! Now, with Great Exhibition about to open, and after months of work, all my models are nearly ready! I have around 45 models that represent Northern innovation, from Rocket to Hyperloop, Beatles to Oasis, and the crossword to Mr Men. It has been the most challenging, but enjoyable project I’ve ever worked on!
Choosing what to include
Particularly challenging for me was what to include in my exhibition for Great Exhibition of the North. Ask 100 artists to tell the story of Northern innovation, and you’d get 100 different stories. Some overlap, of course, but no two the same.
The thing about the North is that you don’t have to search for long to find amazing innovation, culture, inventions, firsts. So my take on Northern Innovation was not a scientific study – it’s my take on it (so don’t take issue with the Timeline of Northern Innovation on display if you think something vital is missing!).
I’ve not chosen the typical, “most important” things. I wanted it to be varied, and unpredictable, and educational. Mr Men are in there, but not hydroelectric power at Cragside, not because the former is more important, but because, well, because that’s what I decided!
I wanted to show off what could be done with LEGO®, but I also wanted to show that there is more to the North than the industrial revolution and football – that we’re still producing world-changing technology and conducting ground-breaking research. I hope that all who see my exhibition learn something about the North (and maybe want to commission a model of their own!)
My working process
People are deeply interested in my working process. Do I use software? How do I envisage what a model should look like? Where do I start? Do things go wrong? You may be surprised to hear that I just start putting bricks together! I use software very occasionally to test ideas that I don’t have the right bricks for (though its becoming rare that I don’t have the right pieces).
Every build starts with two pieces being put together. Often they don’t stay together for long. It’s very iterative. I change direction often. I, sometimes, totally scrap an idea and start again.
For buildings that I’m recreating, it’s clear what they need to look like. I use photos, and sometimes plans, to check scaling is right. I often do have a vision of how it will be built in my head, but not in any great detail. The finding out is the fun part!
The really tricky part for this project was that much of what I was building wasn’t a ‘replica’ of anything in the real world. Often they are a nod to something, such as my virtual reality piece, with the face and headset on or my closed-loop town for example – these models require another level of creativity.
If ten LEGO® artists build the Angel of the North, you might get a range of different models, but probably more similar final models than if the same artists created a model to represent virtual reality. How do you represent graphene – 1 million times thinner than a human hair – out of LEGO®?! Or women’s rights? Or Oasis? There is, of course, no ‘correct way’ and I don’t claim to have searched for that. I just hope I’ve done the North, and the people who have made it great, justice. And if I’ve missed anything out, come along to the Maker Space and make your own model!
(And no, I don’t use glue, so be careful!)
Inspired by Steve’s creations? Build you own model for a chance to be exhibited alongside LEGO® Timeline of Northern Innovation. Read the full details about how to get involved on the Brick This website and contact Steve directly on firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to find out more.